Is Congress afraid of Gen. David Petraeus? If
not, why did its members run around like panicked turkeys in a rain storm to
defend a four-star general from a few liberal Democrats at MoveOn.org? Before
the "Betray Us" flap established MoveOn's bona fides, the outfit was little
more than a fundraising adjunct to the Democratic Party. What else but fear
could induce a Democratic Congress, with a mandate to end the war, to vote three
to one to shield an eminently political general and stalwart administration
supporter from the rough and tumble of American political discourse?
At the beginning of this year the Republican leadership in Congress used a
willing Petraeus to lobby Congress to support the troop "surge." In February,
before departing for Iraq, Petraeus entrenched himself in Senate Minority Leader
Mitch McConnell's office. Senators were then brought from the Senate floor for
a little face time with the general. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's tribute
to the general's powers of persuasion was particularly pithy: "He's the Gen.
Grant of the surge," Graham said, perhaps forgetting that Grant's deputy, William
Tecumseh Sherman, burned South Carolina's capital to the ground back in 1865.
In fact, David Petraeus has long been a willing participant in the administration's
efforts to put a positive spin on the Iraq war. Just six weeks before the last
presidential election, on Sept. 26, 2004, Petraeus penned an opinion
piece for the Washington Post, proclaiming "18 months after entering
Iraq, I see tangible progress."
"Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up.
"The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the
top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and
their security forces courageously in the face of an enemy that has shown a
willingness to do anything to disrupt the establishment of the new Iraq."
Obviously, like the rest of the administration's spinmeisters, Petraeus was
completely wrong, and Iraq has continued its descent into chaos. But what really
disturbed me was Petraeus' transparent attempt to influence the outcome of the
2004 election by painting an optimistic picture of the situation in Iraq.
Petraeus' activities do make one wonder about the role of the uniformed services
in the American political process. Did Adm. Ernest King lobby Congress before
the Marine landings at Guadalcanal? Did Gen. John J. Pershing try to convince
a select group of senators about the wisdom of the Meuse-Argonne offensive?
Lobbying would have been as unnecessary as it would have been distasteful to
earlier generations of admirals and generals. In fact, Petraeus' efforts are
reminiscent of Gen. William Westmoreland's attempts to sell the Vietnam War
to the American people. For example, in 1967 Westmoreland spoke of the "repeated
successes" of the American-supported South Vietnamese army, claiming "The strategy
we're following at this time is the proper one" and "is producing results."
The reality is that the White House picked Petraeus to lead the troop surge,
a strategy cooked up at the American Enterprise Institute, because he is politically
reliable. There is, after all, widespread acknowledgment that the surge is not
going to get the United States out of Iraq any time soon. Many senior officers,
including Petraeus' predecessor in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, opposed the surge,
arguing that a greater U.S. presence would further enflame Iraqi nationalism
and keep the Iraqi government dependent on foreign troops.
If 130,000 troops have been unable to broker a political settlement between
the warring factions in Iraq, it seems unlikely that 160,000 will succeed in
doing so. At bottom, the surge is a strategy only in the sense that it aims
to postpone the day the Iraq adventure is written off as a failure until the
Bush administration is out of office. The president's "Plan for Victory" announced
a couple of years ago at Annapolis has morphed into a Petraeus-led scheme to
pass this mess along to the next administration.
The White House wanted Petraeus to sell the surge because Americans still respect
their armed forces. The Bush administration finds its public credibility on
the war near zero, having been completely and disastrously wrong about everything
in Iraq for the past five years. When the administration speaks about Iraq,
the only folks still listening also believe in the Rapture, post on FreeRepublic,
and/or tune in to Rush Limbaugh.
Last month Petraeus returned to Congress to make his much-heralded report on
progress in Iraq. Petraeus testified that "the military objectives of the surge
are, in large measure, being met" and that ethnic violence had been reduced.
But left unsaid was that the disintegration of Iraq has accelerated on the general's
watch. The Sunnis of Anbar province have been happy to cooperate, for the moment,
with American forces while they take the opportunity to expel their Shia neighbors.
The Shia of Anbar are fleeing to Baghdad, while the middle-class Sunnis of the
capital decamp for Jordan and Syria. Four million Iraqis – 15 percent of the
population – are now displaced.
When Petraeus appeared before Congress in September, he sought to boost his
independence and credibility by claiming his report on the surge had not "been
cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or Congress."
These protestations of honesty have been heard before, perhaps most memorably
in Colin Powell's speech before the UN Security Council about Saddam's weapons
of mass destruction. when he stated "every statement I make today is backed
up by sources."
As Bush uses Petraeus to prolong the agony in Iraq, the military becomes the
administration's water-carrier as well as its spear-thrower. Congress seems
to be quite willing to accept the military's new role and to continue to abdicate
its responsibility. Senators Lieberman and McCain, for example, have gone so
far as to write in the Wall
Street Journal that "the U.S. footprint [in Iraq] will no doubt adjust.
But these adjustments should be left to the discretion of Gen. Petraeus, not
forced on our troops by politicians in Washington." So much for congressional
Congress seems to fear above all else being tagged with failure to support
the troops. Two points: First, there is no way the Army in Iraq is going
to run out of bullets and gasoline and be left at the mercy of the insurgents.
If Congress refuses to fund the war, the troops will have to come home. Second,
Congress has no more obligation to continue to finance the Iraq war than it
does to keep funding Blackwater's or Halliburton's contracts. If Congress really
wanted to support the troops, it would end Bush's fool's errand of trying to
bring democracy to Iraq and bring them home.
Under the Constitution, which every federal employee from the president downward
swears to "uphold and defend," the uniformed services make war at the discretion
of the American people exercised through their elected representatives in the
House and Senate. Perhaps Congress needs to be reminded that under the American
system of government the armed services exist to serve the American people.
The American people do not exist to serve and fund the armed services or the
huge panoply of arms makers and other Pentagon contractors that have grown so
influential in American society.
Congress' rush to defend Petraeus from MoveOn's jibe is even more remarkable
given the less-than-flattering way Petraeus has been described by his immediate
superior, CentCom commander Adm. William Fallon. It has been widely reported
that Fallon described Petraeus during their first meeting as "an
ass-kissing little chickensh*t." Might the admiral's description inform
our view of Petraeus' service to the Bush administration?